Fred Cramer’s nature art goes on display at Vinton Town Hall
VINTON–Artist Fred Cramer came to Vinton in the 1940’s when he was eleven years old. His grandfather had purchased some property on what is now Feather Road and then sold parcels to his sons. At that time, Cramer’s father, John, painted buses for the Safety Motor Transit Corporation.
Money was tight and John Cramer decided to buy a concrete block mold and make his own blocks to lay the foundation for his house. The Cramers, father and son, could make about 20 blocks each day and eventually produced the 1000 blocks they needed.
John Cramer’s co-workers liked to keep track of his progress on the house and arranged to drive their out-of-service buses on Feather Road to pass by the Cramer’s. That route became the established test drive route and continues to be to this day.
At the time the Cramers completed their home in 1948, they were surrounded by dairy farms, not subdivisions. Vinton was completely rural.
Cramer graduated from the old William Byrd High School on the hill near downtown in 1953. He worked as a commercial artist for Stone Printing for four years and then enlisted in the Air Force in 1957 when he realized that he was about to be drafted into the Army.
With his drawing skills, Cramer became a technical illustrator in the Air Force, producing manuals for new equipment and new technology, some classified.
When Cramer returned to civilian life, he came back to Roanoke and to commercial art, working for Roanoke Engraving and then Associated Advertising.
In 1971, he opened Cramer Graphics in Roanoke and gradually over the years taught himself most everything there was to know about the commercial side of art, advertising, and photography. He became well known in the area for fashion, product, and industrial photography, and even aerial photography.
In the beginning his motivation was financial.
“What can I put on film or paper to pay the bills?” said Cramer.
His enterprises included a custom black and white film processing lab, which became a significant part of his business in the years before color photography became the norm.
Over the years Cramer handled the newspaper advertising and fashion photography for Sidney’s, a women’s apparel store. He did industrial photography for Appalachian Power Company for 20 years, producing brochures, annual reports, and inserts to accompany monthly bills and promote new products.
For nine years, he was in charge of all aspects of advertising for the Peaks of Otter Lodge.
In those days before the digital age, taking photographs was much more challenging. Cramer recalls being called to Richmond for a photo shoot with Governor Linwood Holton in the 1970’s. He was to photograph the governor with the Easter Seal poster child of the year. Instead of the lengthy photo session he anticipated, Holton rushed in, rushed out, and Cramer was left to piece together the three photos he managed to take on film into an acceptable Easter Seal campaign portrait.
Cramer made his living doing commercial art; but once his business was established, he was able to indulge his lifelong passion for the outdoors, wildlife, and the fine arts in painting, nature photography, sculpting and carving.
He spent many summers at the beach at Ocracoke teaching art and photography classes for the Park Service at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. An employee ran his Roanoke studio and Cramer would return home occasionally for commercial photo shoots during the summer.
Cramer would take photographs at the beach, and then spend the off-season in Vinton, painting and sketching the scenes or producing the photographs that he could take back to the beach the next summer to sell in area gift shops or at the National Park Visitor Centers.
He lived on Norbourne Avenue at the time with his wife, Katheryn, a schoolteacher, and two sons, who would spend part of the summer at the beach with him and part back home in Vinton.
The commercial art industry began to change in the 90’s with advances in technology, processing, and the use of computers in advertising and photography. When the industry changed its focus to digital photography and color processing, Cramer decided he did not want to make the change with it and chose to retire.
That was about 15 years ago. Twelve years ago, Cramer moved back to his boyhood home on Feather Road and began renovating the house and adding on studios.
Since then, he has had time to take the courses necessary to become certified as a Master Naturalist. He belongs to several bird and nature clubs in the Valley and to area art associations. He has time to fish and hunt and garden.
In 2001, he spent six weeks on the Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific with a group who chopped paths through the jungle with machetes helping to eradicate black rats who had infiltrated the island during World War II and who were destroying seabirds and other native species.
“A great adventure and great fishing,” said Cramer.
He recently travelled to Costa Rica for a week, accompanying a grandson from Richmond who is a competitive gymnast, photographing volcanoes and the rainforests inhabited by Howler monkeys.
His time in nature has fueled his art. Visiting his home and studios is a feast for the eyes, as there are a variety of art genres throughout. Not only are there paintings, photographs, and carvings on display and in the works; Cramer has painted scenes on the patio and the foundation walls.
He began carving wood in 1980, translating his love of wildlife into 3D form. Cramer usually starts with research, field observation, and photographs of his subject, followed by a clay model to experiment with detail and dimensions, although carving with clay and carving in wood are opposite processes.
“Making models from clay is adding on; carving with wood is taking away,” said Cramer. “With carving, you cut off everything that isn’t bird, and you’re done.”
In past years, he would even borrow bird skins from the Virginia Tech ornithology department to research the finer details for his art.
His final step is transferring the carving to wood. Cramer prefers tupelo wood, when available, or basswood. Tupelo wood is very uniform, but also becoming very rare. It grows in states south of Virginia in swampy areas. The optimum carving wood extends from the water line to two feet above. Once the carving is complete, color is applied, again subject to extensive research.
Cramer occasionally enters art shows, such as the League of Roanoke Artists (LRA) showcase at the Jefferson Center, or sets up exhibits, “to keep his hat in the ring.” He also accepts commissioned work.
In 2011 he won the Linda Hall Memorial Award from the LRA for his watercolor painting entitled “Octoberfest”, adding to his collection of ribbons and awards.
“It feels good to sell something or to get a pat on the head with an award,” said Cramer.
Cramer currently has a collection on exhibit at the Municipal Building in Vinton, including water colors, wood cuts, and photographs. His work will be on exhibit and for sale at the Vinton Municipal Building through August 7th.